How Changing Places In VR Can Teach Employees Soft Skills

Can swapping bodies with your employees in VR help you to become a better manager?

More businesses across every industry have come to realize that soft skills—attributes that allow you to effectively communicate with others—are far from a “nice to have” and are actually essential in order to maintain a well-rounded and creative workforce capable of tackling the complex challenges that come with doing business in the modern digital age.

“For organizations, the ability to turn employees into smart, collaborative and self-directed leaders is often the difference between thriving and surviving,” says Christophe Mallet, co-founder of Somewhere Else, a London-based innovation agency specializing in immersive technologies.

Jamie Duncan, Chief Revenue Officer at CorporateDNA, adds that in training there has traditionally been a focus on knowledge; but when it comes to soft skills, knowledge isn’t necessarily power. “It’s what you can actually do with that knowledge. Your mindset is greater than your skill set, your attitude is far more important than what you learned.”

Using VR technology, you can embody anyone and take part in virtually any simulated social interaction imaginable. This is called virtual embodiment. Virtual embodiment promotes implicit learning, which is not only more easily assimilated, but tends to be deeply retained, engendering longer-lasting and more fundamental behavioral change.

Image Credit: Somewhere Else

Studies by the likes of the University of Barcelona and Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab have shown how embodied VR experiences can affect meaningful behavioral change, from reducing implicit racism bias and priming altruistic behavior, to making domestic abusers less likely to recidivate.

From a Learning & Development perspective, VR combines the scaling potential of e-learning with the experiential impact of face-to-face training. In other words, VR-based soft skills training effectively enables organizations to deliver workforce behavioral change at scale.

Image Credit: Somewhere Else

Developed by Somewhere Else, BODYSWAPS is a soft skills training platform powered by AI and VR which claims to do just that. The first BODYSWAPS scenario deployed was the ‘David’ Project – a performance management scenario developed with Corporate DNA Consulting, a global leadership firm.

BODYSWAPS works by letting employees practice those skills, acting out a range of high-pressure workplace scenarios with AI-powered virtual humans. You can be a manager giving an employee negative feedback, a CEO pitching an idea to the Board, a young woman in a male-dominated group meeting, etc.

Image Credit: Somewhere Else

In each scenario, you get to effectively step into a virtual body, which then takes on your own voice and natural body language as you go about your interaction with the virtual characters.

The interesting thing about this format is that it’s not based on binary choice; there are many nuances that force you to think on your feet, says Mallet. The pressure to perform feels very real.

At the end of the experience, you are given—as the name suggests—the chance to experience the whole scenario from the perspective of the person you were just interacting with.

Image Credit: Somewhere Else

“This approach creates empathy and self-awareness,” and those, Mallet explains, are two of the most powerful drivers of effective behavioral change. For Tom Cross, a Performance Psychologist who tested the platform, “The emotional impact of VR speeds up the cycle of behavioral change and will make people more effective as leaders moving forward”.

There’s a lot of talk about the experiential value of immersive technologies, but this is something that really brings it home in a very real sense. Swapping bodies with the character you were just having a go at gives managers the chance–in fact, forces them—to empathize with their point of view in a way that would have been quite impossible under normal circumstances.

Image Credit: Somewhere Else

The result, Mallet believes, is having those in charge reflect upon how they act and identify what small adjustments and nuances can make a difference in how the same message is delivered. In other words: the true impact and importance of so-called “soft skills”.

XR Developer Talespin has also been showcasing their own proprietary VR-based soft skills simulation, in which users are tasked with firing an incredibly realistic AI-powered employee. Stepping into the shoes of an HR head, they must verbalize the correct responses to keep the situation from escalating and the employee from becoming upset.

As AI and XR technology continue to develop at their current pace, no doubt we’ll continue to see a rise in XR-based soft skills training.

About the Scout

Alice Bonasio

Alice Bonasio runs the Tech Trends blog and contributes to Ars Technica, Quartz, Newsweek, The Next Web, and others. She is also writing VRgins, a book about sex and relationships in the virtual age. She lives in the UK.

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